Since Sean Miller took the reins of the Xavier Musketeers back in 2005, the team has failed to rank in the top 100 in adjusted defense only one time. While the offense has gone up and down, Xavier's defense has been the building block of the program. The building block of the defensive philosophy that has been in place that entire time is the packline defense.
The packline defense was the brainchild of Dick Bennett when he coached at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. From there, Coach Bennett took the defense to the big time with Division I University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and eventually to a 5/12 upset of Jason Kidd's California Bears. The packline shuts down the high octane Bears in much the same way the defense still functions today. Not insistent on creating turnovers, the defense instead focuses on forcing contested shots and sending five men to the defensive boards.
The packline (or, sometimes, pack line) is an imaginary line that traces the three point line, but about two feet inside it. All defenders, except for the one on the ball, stay inside that line and concentrate on cutting down passing angles, helping on driving opponents, and not allowing anyone to get to the baseline. The man on the ball pressures his man and tries to cut off good angles for a post entry pass. The focus of the defense is on rebounding and forcing every single shot inside the arc to be contested and not in good space. It is absolutely incumbent upon defenders to be in position to jump out to their man should he get the ball.
And therein lies the rub with the packline. Quick reversals or skip passes force players that had collapsed into the pack in the middle of lane to jump out to a shooter. Any hesitation, and the packline is completely destroyed by having two players outside the line (the original defender and one scrambling to jump out) or having no players outside the line if the original player recovers quickly and the new defender isn't fast enough on the way out. Either of those situations leads to a spot up shooter sitting outside the defense and having the time to take a three pointer. Again, defense doesn't greatly impact three point shooting percentage, but it does greatly impact opponents three point attempts.
This season, especially in conference play, teams are destroying Xavier from behind the arc. Since Chris Mack took over, the amount of opponents shots from behind the arc has been notably higher than Xavier allowed under previous coaches. Last season, teams took 38.5% of their shots against the Musketeers from deep. This year, opponents are taking 35%, 36.5% since conference play started. Teams are making their three pointers at a 35% rate, 39% in conference play. Obviously, that means the Musketeers are giving up a great deal points from behind the arc as teams are content to bomb them into submission. Even an absolutely dreadful DePaul team got off 22 threes on Wednesday night.
So what is the difference this year as opposed to year's past? Since Coach Mack took over, opponent's three point percentage has either held the same or dropped once conference play began. That was in the Atlantic 10 though, and now Xavier plays in the Big East. Better teams means better players, and better players make a greater amount of their open three pointers. Facing competition on a level higher than the one they are used to, Xavier is getting destroyed from deep. The packline is not going to effectively combat that, is it time for a philosophical shift in the Musketeers defense?